Review of “Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times” by Former Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown5 min read

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[Editor’s Note: Former Speaker Willie Brown, whose book gets a Tony Quinn treatment below, is scheduled to discuss his book at the Crest Theater Feb. 19 in a conversation with his former staffer and now lobbyist Phil Isenberg. It should be a great show.]

Generally autobiographies of politicians are best left on the bookstore shelf, but that is not the case with Basic Brown, My Life and Our Times, by former Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown. [Published by Simon and Shuster, the book is scheduled for publication Feb. 5.] While excessively self laudatory, and not as introspective as one might like, nevertheless this book provides a rare look at the rise of an unusual politician from segregation in Texas to being the most powerful legislator in America.

The first 40 pages or so might have been left on the bookshelf; their purpose is largely to demonstrate he is the most brilliant politician he ever dealt with. But then Brown begins talking about his views on race and politics, and finally gets around to his own rise from poverty in Texas to style and power in San Francisco.

His treatise on race begins with an amusing story. He was in Atlanta in 1968 with white Assemblyman Bill Bagley and several black politicians, and Bagley had rented a car, which he was driving. They passed through the Atlanta black ghetto and Bagley asked why all the blacks on the street corners were staring at them. Brown answered, “Because they have never before seen a white man chauffeur four black men around.”

There is both resentment and condescension when Brown talks about race. “I’ve never become a country club black person, like former Congressman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma or even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I’ve always kept my membership in the black world.” One suspects his criticism is more that Watts and Rice are not liberals like him, and that they have broken out of the expected mold of black politicians.

He makes an unusual attack on his successor as mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, all but accusing him of racism in appointments. “When I was mayor of San Francisco I made a point to appoint as many qualified blacks as I could to city posts. Now when I walk around city hall, I see almost no black faces. When I left, blacks were ousted along with me.”

Brown is at his best in describing his rise in San Francisco politics, and then his rise to leadership in the Assembly. The pages on his life from the time of his arrival in San Francisco in 1951 until his election to the Assembly in 1964 may be the best part of the book for future reference, because they parallel the changes in San Francisco Democratic politics from the old Irish based establishment to the more militantly liberal San Francisco politics that has emerged in recent decades. Brown was deeply involved in every aspect of these changes.

The chapter on his election as Assembly Speaker in 1981, starting with no votes and forming a coalition with Republicans to beat out the heavy favorite in his caucus, is superb. This is a lesson in politics in very personal terms, with the usual and expected Willie Brown flair.

But Brown has an irritating habit of amending and revising facts when they do not suit his purposes and this is something his editors should have caught. For instance, in describing his first try at the speaker’s office in 1974, that he lost, Brown blames his misfortune on a “stab in the back” by his fellow black Assemblyman Leon Ralph. He says he lost the Speakership “by one vote.” This is not true, the July 1974 issue of the California Journal, page 245, tells what really happened: Brown lost the backing of all his fellow black Assemblymen but one and lost by four votes not one.

He was chairman of the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee when Proposition 13 passed in 1978 and says nothing he could have done “would assuage the spirit of tax cutting abroad in the land.” But he fails to note that he helped put a weak competing measure on the ballot, that the voters trashed, and that he failed to promote meaningful property tax relief all the time he headed that committee.

Term limits is one of his least favorite topics, because he is right that it was aimed at getting him out of office, pushed through by “mean spirited wretches from southern California.” But he fails to note that the original impetus for term limits arose from his own actions as speaker, including pushing through a highly partisan redistricting plan in 1981 that Republicans never forgave him for.

Brown’s relationship with Republicans is one of the more interesting features of the book. Like many politicians, he saves his greatest contempt for members of his own party, especially those he feels betrayed him over the years. But he does praise the principles and consistency of some Republicans, with whom often he had little in common.

One such case involves GOP Gov. George Deukmejian. Brown badly wanted Deukmejian to sign an Assembly bill divesting California of investments in the apartheid government of white minority South Africa. He got to know Deukmejian on a personal basis and was able to point out parallels between the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915 – a matter Deukmejian knew well – and the plight of black South Africans in 1985.

Deukmejian eventually signed the divestiture bill – in Brown’s hometown of San Francisco. History will show that the California divestiture played a roll in replacing the white minority government with the democratic one South Africa has today.
It is little gems like this that make Brown’s book a good read, for all the flamboyant self-praise of its author.

And speaking of praise, Brown deserves some for the front-piece compliment his book gives to P.J. Corkery, the former SF Examiner columnist who did the writing. Not all celebrities are so generous.

Tony Quinn is a co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of California legislative and congressional campaigns. His political background has been in Republican politics, but he is mostly involved in political and elections analysis and writes, from time to time, for the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee. He worked for the Assembly Republican Caucus during the time Brown was Speaker. This article was originally published in the Capitol Morning Report and republished with their permission and that of the author.

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